AUGUSTA — Maine’s first lady, Ann LePage, is supporting an effort to change the state’s constitution to provide victims of crime broader rights, including the right to be notified when a person accused or convicted of a crime against them will be released from jail or prison.

Known as “Marsy’s Law for Maine,” the proposed amendment to the Maine Constitution would give “crime victims equal rights to those accused or convicted of the crimes against them,” said a news release issued Monday by LePage.

LePage is serving as state chairwoman of the effort.

But opponents to the change, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, say the measure will have unintended consequences for the state’s criminal justice system and may do as much damage as good to victims’ rights.

A change to the state’s constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature as well as approval by voters in a statewide referendum.

“Maine crime victims deserve the common-sense equal rights, protections and legal standing Marsy’s Law for Maine will afford them, and they deserve a voice in the criminal justice system,” LePage said in a prepared statement. “I am proud to support this bipartisan effort that will give crime victims guaranteed, enforceable rights they can count on, and bring Maine into the fold with the majority of states that already afford constitutional rights to crime victims.”

The amendment would require, among other things, that the victims of crimes be “treated with fairness, dignity and respect throughout the criminal justice process, to be notified in a timely manner if the accused is released from custody or has escaped, to be notified of and present at public proceedings, and to be heard at certain proceedings.”

The amendment would also provide crime victims with the right to restitution, to proceedings free from unreasonable delay an to a prompt conclusion of the case, and to be informed of their constitutional rights while giving them the ability to petition a court for a remedy when they believe their rights have been violated.

The amendment effort is part of a nationwide push after a California mother encountered the man charged with murdering her daughter, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, while the suspect was free on bail in a grocery store in 1983. Nicholas’ brother, a California billionaire, has bankrolled a nationwide effort to see states change their constitutions.

A bill that has gained bipartisan support in the Maine Legislature would send a ballot question to voters asking them to change the constitution. The measure, which has support from legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle, will be taken up sometime in 2018 after the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Chris Quint, the state director for the amendment push, thanked LePage, saying “Mrs. LePage’s support of Marsy’s Law for Maine is instrumental in raising awareness of the need for equal rights for crime victims in our state.”

Opponents of the change have said it would clog up the state’s court system by allowing victims more frequent involvement in each step of the court process. They say the amendment could also jeopardize impartial trials by preventing defense attorneys from accessing victims’ statements and, in some cases, evidence.

“Maine’s criminal justice system is already overburdened and under-resourced and the additions in this constitutional amendment could result in lengthy litigation to determine the balance between the victim’s rights and the defendant’s rights, along with significant increased spending in the prison system, much to the detriment of other important community needs,” Oamshri Amarasingham, the public policy counsel for the ACLU of Maine, told the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in May.

The proposed amendment was also opposed by the Maine Judicial Branch’s Criminal Law Advisory Commission, which asserted that victims’ rights in Maine were already well protected under state law. In an email message to the Legislature in May, the commission’s John Pelletier said lawmakers could change existing laws, which include nine sections on protecting crime victims, if they felt victims were not adequately protected.

“The Legislature should amend the victim rights laws and allow the system to develop procedures and address issues that arise, before creating a constitutional provision that may have unintended consequences and could only be changed through subsequent constitutional amendment,” Pelletier wrote.

Scott Thistle can be contacted at 713-6720 or at:

[email protected]

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